top of page
  • Jeff Baierlein

A Shark Attack Raises the Question: What Are the Greatest Risks Outdoors?

After a deadly shark attack in Massachusetts, questions about outdoor program risk management and outdoor safety arise.

This past weekend a man was attacked and killed by a shark while swimming at a beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This is a tragic event for the victim, Arthur Medici, and his loved ones. Scores of news outlets covered his untimely death.

It was the first fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936.

The incident is a grim reminder to follow precautions: seek local knowledge before entering the water. Remain aware of your surroundings. Don’t harass sharks.

Beach managers should separate swimming and fishing areas. They should prohibit hand-feeding sharks. Beaches should be closed for five days after a shark attack. Shark nets and sonar buoys are sometimes—but often not—useful.

The incident also raises the question: what’s the risk of being bitten by a shark? Despite breathless news reports, the answer remains: vanishingly small.

The Actual Risks of Outdoor Activity: What the Headlines Don’t Say

World-wide, there are about six deaths each year from unprovoked shark attacks. This means you’re more likely to be injured or killed driving to the beach than by a shark.

What animal causes 50,000 times more human deaths than sharks? Mosquitoes. But even the mosquito causes far fewer fatalities than heart disease, which killed over 633,000 Americans in 2015. Poignantly, many of these premature deaths could easily be prevented by a healthy diet and exercise.

The great white is less dangerous than the hamburger and the couch. But the deaths they lead to go largely unpublicized.

Percent distribution of 10 leading causes of death, USA (2016). From Centers for Disease Control.  Heart disease the leading cause. In terms of risk management from outdoor activities, sharks are not a major cause.
Percent distribution of 10 leading causes of death, USA (2016). No sharks here. Courtesy: CDC

It’s appropriate for outdoor education and outdoor recreation programs to pay attention to serious but rare incidents like shark attacks. However, it’s important to maintain a focus on the incidents that—despite being less serious and less sensational—are more likely to occur.

For marine programs, this includes medical issues like sunburn and dehydration. Procedures should be in place to prevent jellyfish stings and skin infections. Preventing disease-causing tick and mosquito bites, and attention to food safety and hygiene, are not glamorous but help keep participants healthy and happy. They can even save lives.

Risk Management Reviews: Uncovering Opportunities to Improve Safety

News media emphasize sensational but rare causes of death. But organizations that conduct outdoor programs must not forget about the risks that are actually most likely to exist.

That’s why outdoor program safety reviews, such as those conducted by Viristar, focus on the most likely-to-occur causes of injury, illness, property damage and fatality. These risk management reviews offer a comprehensive audit that helps organizations minimize the probability of loss from risks both common and rare.

With water-related outdoor activities specifically, what is a realistic major risk? Drowning: the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide. It kills 360,000 each year. Almost 80 percent of victims are male. (Research suggests that riskier behavior by males is a factor.) Children are most at risk. Alcohol is involved in most water-related deaths. And nine out of 10 victims of boating deaths (which were mostly from drowning) weren’t wearing personal flotation devices.

Drowning: a far greater risk than sharks. An outdoor safety issue—and largely preventable through good outdoor program risk management. Courtesy: World Health Org.
Drowning: a far greater risk than sharks. An outdoor safety issue—and largely preventable. Courtesy: WHO

To help avoid drowning, then: don’t be a young male, don’t use alcohol, and please, wear your PFD.

Other strategies and best practices can further reduce risk. A formal safety review can help outdoor education or outdoor recreation organizations identify and implement a comprehensive approach.

Sharks: Part of the Ecosystem, Not Part of the Problem

Despite their low risk, sharks persist in the public imagination. Often, it’s with an undue bad reputation. These majestic yet misunderstood creatures have swum the Earth’s oceans for 450 million years. They lived before, during and after the age of dinosaurs. Somehow they survived all five of the Earth’s mass extinctions, when most other species perished.

But now, overfishing, climate change and other factors put these ancient animals at risk. Humans kill a staggering 100 million sharks a year. A quarter of shark and ray species are in danger of extinction.

Seals, not humans, are a shark’s natural food. When a shark bites a human, it’s usually because the shark mistakes the person for a seal. The bite is an accident—you’re simply not on the menu. Staying away from seal haulouts, not wearing high-contrast swimsuits, and avoiding murky water can help avoid mistaken identity. Following shark-wise practices can help us coexist with sharks when we jump into the water—when we enter their home.

Towards Safer Outdoor Programs and Activities

The Cape Cod swimmer’s untimely death is tragic. Yet it’s important to see through the news media’s sensational headlines. Other factors pose a much higher risk to life than sharks. As politicians condemn sharks and point angrily fingers at other officials, water safety priorities aimed at preventing drowning and other risks should not be forgotten.

Keeping an unbiased view of outdoor hazards and risk management helps keep safety priorities straight. By doing so, we can make the beaches of Cape Cod—and the outdoors everywhere—a more safe, fun and enriching place for all.

Viristar gratefully acknowledges the following sources: CDC, WHO, Shark Research Institute, University of Florida, Marine Policy journal, and CDC EID.


bottom of page